Learning to Build Rockets, in a Tel Aviv Square

An accident during Science Day proved that Israel may have incredible technological accomplishments, but it is incompetent when it comes to taking care of its own people.

The Israel Science Day at Rabin Square, Tel Aviv. March 26, 2014.
The Israel Science Day at Rabin Square, Tel Aviv. March 26, 2014. Tomer Appelbaum.

Most of the Israel Science Day events in Rabin Square on Thursday were about some missile or other, or anyway something to do with security. At the Israel Aerospace Industries tent at the entrance, children were being photographed. They could choose to have their photoshopped image beside a satellite, or flying on a missile somewhere up in the clouds, as though missiles were teddy bears.

Many children posted their photo on a missile on Facebook. So did I, of course. It’s free. But I noticed it was mainly men who were having their picture taken.

Two visitors near me held a lively conversation about nuclear weapons. “To fire a nuclear weapon you need two people to press a button,” one says.

“And if a terrorist comes in?” the other asks.

“To this day a single bomb hasn’t been stolen. If one had, there’d be cities missing,” his friend answers.

I asked them what they thought of the fair. “It’s to strengthen the Israeli ego,” one says.

The nice engineer from IAI explained at length to someone how the satellite engine works. I asked him if anyone offered non-technical, ethical questions – like why they were trying to attract small children to missiles, North Korea-style. He was confused and said the question should be directed to the fair organizers, not him.

Many gather near the Iron Dome battery, around the pretty young blonde exhibiting Israel’s pride and joy. Among them are two Filipino girls and a Filipino guy names Steven, who works with the elderly on Jabotinsky Street.

“I liked the exhibition very much,” he says. “We don’t have such things. It’s a good way to learn about Israel and a good example for the younger generation.”

The Israelis are more suspicious. “Why isn’t there an antenna?” one of them says crossly. He says he’s an engineer of Elta (a subsidiary of IAI), who came with his children to feel proud. “It annoys me. The antenna is a world achievement and that you didn’t bring.” Silence falls all around. We feel cheated. We came all this way and didn’t get an antenna.

The guide says the exhibited device is only part of the battery, as some facilities are secret. Asked about the people operating the interceptors, she says, “I can’t get into that.”

“She’s not answering any of the interesting questions,” someone grumbles. I move on to a video of the Iron Dome, which shows someone who looks like a Biblical prophet blocking missiles with his primordial superpowers. Indeed, the Iron Dome is a vital achievement enabling a lot of people in the south to sleep well. But the scientific value of exhibiting it at the fair is similar to displaying a giant microwave, without even showing how it makes popcorn.

“We’ve always seen it on television – here you see the real thing,” says Arik, 15, of ORT Rehovot.

I ask if he thought children and youngsters’ minds should be soaked with weapons and war, and his friend says: “War is good.” The exhibition is a success.

Our conversation is cut short when a missile, based on a water bottle, comes flying out of the ORT tent. This is an initiative of the ORT high school in the Bustan al-Marj Regional Council, near Afula. The students show me how to make the missile; you drip some water into the bottle, fill it with air with a bicycle pump, and finally the cork pops and the missile goes flying and quickly lands.

I pass a candle floating on water and a few robots and come to an exhibit of a laser-guided, anti-tank missile built by Kobi of ORT Rehovot. I wait while he is interviewed for a French website to ask if it wasn’t better to invest in medicine rather than missiles.

Call an ambulance

But then a terrible thing happens. The candle-on-water device goes haywire and three children are burned. One of them suffers burns on his face. The place fills with tears, shouts and a smell of burned hair and skin. Two of the injured children leave with their parents in a taxi, the third waits for an ambulance. The boy’s mother is shocked that there’s no ambulance at a place where experiments with fire are held.

She’ll sue the organizers, she says.

Ten minutes later an ambulance arrives. The mother and boy climb in but the driver refuses to go, claiming he has no insurance for the mother. He tells her to get off and take a taxi. She shouts at him to go, but he won’t. Someone starts swearing at the driver, grabs him and tries to hit him.

Another man and I try to separate the two so the ambulance can take the boy to the hospital. Finally it drives off with the mother inside as well.

Israel may have incredible technological accomplishments in weapons and defense systems. But when it comes to taking care of its own people, this country is as incompetent as an ambulance driver with a burned child.